How Stop SOPA Can Do What Occupy Wall Street Never Could

By Nathaniel Whittemore , written on January 18, 2012

From The News Desk

This morning, the lights went out on the internet.

Around the web, sites from Google to Reddit to Wikipedia are turning off core services to dramatize and protest legislation working its way through the Senate and House that would give the government heretofore unheard of authority to deny access to and censor the internet in the name of fighting piracy.

The legislation has come about through intense lobbying by the content owners whose business models are most threatened, not just by piracy, but by the massively disruptive forces of a social internet which pushes control of distribution and price away from studios and towards networks.

The startup world has responded with a vigor previously unseen in public policy debates. The implications of these bills and the precedents they set, the startup ecosystem argues, aren't just less piracy, but a fundamental undermining of the freedom, openness, and bedrock meritocracy that allows a couple kids in an apartment to build a service that takes down a billion-dollar incumbent. This potentiality is at the very core of the promise of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, so it is no surprise that the chorus against the legislation is reaching fever pitch.

Still, it is profoundly exciting to see entrepreneurs step up to fight for what they believe in the political arena. Reddit founder Alexis Ohanion, for example, has been tenacious in rallying people to the cause. In New York, protests are being held in front of the offices of Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. Those of us who live in San Francisco or NYC or work in the tech industry woke up to Facebook feeds dominated by Stop SOPA photos and shares of protest action from around the web.

It is easy to look at all of this evidence - not to mention the Obama Administration's withdrawal of support from SOPA yesterday - and feel invincible. And yet...

This is not a battle of today, or the next month, or even the next year. Questions of privacy and regulation of internet business are going to shape the coming decades, and the way policy is shaped will have a powerful deterministic impact not just on our ability to create startups but the fundamental nature of the 21st century economy.

Although the SOPA/PIPA debate is anchored around questions of freedom on the internet, there are meaningful intellectual connections to the Occupy Wall Street that shaped the cultural, political, and media zeitgeist of the past several months. Cutting through the noise and hollering, the core feeling that lay underneath OWS was that the fairness of the distribution of power was fundamentally off. The problem was not just that financiers were powerful, but that their power was shaping the economy in a way that had essentially unwound the promise of the American Dream that people who worked hard could improve their economic destiny.

The problem with OWS was that feelings and sentiments, however noble, do not on their own translate into addressable units of change. By calling for an end to all sorts of things, OWS struggled for a clarity of message that could become focused, winnable action goals, and had a difficult time channeling all of the energy it kicked up. Contrast this with extraordinary success of the Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt, where the singular focus was removing President Mubarak from power at any cost.

Although not about finance, per se, the protests against SOPA/PIPA are also about the future of the American Dream, and the promise that people with great ideas can build important companies and institutions without the interference of a government on the dole of the existing actors. Its great opportunity is that by having tangible, specific legislation to combat, it can start from a set of focused, winnable goals, and build the movement on the back of those successes.

In the long run, victory in this battle is not just about prying Chuck Schumer out of the pocket of the media lobbies, but about convincing the average person - who doesn't even know an internet entrepreneur, much less is one themselves - that an unfettered, unrestricted internet is an essential and unqualified right of modern life.

Like all social action campaigns, the greatest success of today's protest would be if it can successfully transition from a moment of aligned action to a movement of shared sentiment. This involves educating people who don't have a professional stake in these issues, or who simply haven't taken or had the time to understand them. It involves reaching out to people who think fighting piracy is important, but share some of our concerns. It involves the hard, grunting, thankless work of building power before it's needed.

Today was a portentous day: the day the internet drew a line in the sand. Tomorrow, the question is entirely who else we can get to cross that line and join us.